Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
A brooding reluctance in voter-land

Bill Shorten began the week on an upbeat note, saying he had detected a mood for change. Constant opinion polling has reinforced his discerned wisdom but there is a brooding reluctance in voter-land. One of Shorten’s key strategists was quietly confident midweek of a Labor win, “but it’s a white-knuckle ride”. It is because Scott Morrison has proved a formidable campaigner and has been able to mobilise Australian voters’ fear of change in a way that defies the reality of the shambles he inherited nine months ago. As one Liberal MP said, “Given the shithouse hand he was dealt, Scott has done an amazing job.”

Morrison came to the prime ministership at the height of a Liberal Party civil war that paralysed the Coalition government. His controversial double play has left Malcolm Turnbull embittered but it saved the government from being led by the deeply unpopular Peter Dutton. Liberal strategists, including one-time senior Howard adviser Senator Arthur Sinodinos, say the path to victory for the Coalition is real, albeit narrow. Narrow is an understatement, given the government has no buffer of a majority. It can’t lose 18 seats, as Howard did in 1998, and still win the election. The Morrison government needs to not only hold on to its own seats but also take at least four from Labor or the crossbenchers. Its best-case scenario is probably minority government.

But that thought has some Labor old-timers deeply worried.

One quotes the insight of former Whitlam minister and South Australian powerbroker Clyde Cameron: “If you go to an election with a view to raising taxes, you will not win.” Of course, Shorten and his shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, are not only promising that – there are tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners, though for those earning more than $180,000, they will raise taxes by reinstating Joe Hockey’s budget repair levy. Labor has laid out an agenda to save $154 billion in spending over the next decade by cutting back tax concessions on negative gearing, dividend imputation rebates and capital gains tax. The party is promising to spend $120 billion on health, education, pensioners and younger voters. The rest is earmarked to pay down Australia’s debt.

Scott Morrison has not bothered with the technical niceties, relentlessly describing Labor’s fiscal management as “raising taxes”. He is counting on the fact that – as far as voters are concerned – Labor is threatening to take money out of their pockets. This week on the campaign trail, Morrison answered practically every question from reporters by pivoting back to taxes. For example, when he was questioned about being a cabinet minister who supported the same-sex marriage postal poll, but had walked out of parliament rather than vote on its passage, he said, “That is not what this election is about. This election is about Bill Shorten wanting you to pay more tax because he thinks a big-taxing, big-spending approach is the answer to Australia’s future. I don’t agree.”

Inside the Labor campaign, they agree many people don’t like the crackdown on tax concessions – even though 90 per cent of voters won’t be affected. They counter with the Liberals’ own big negative of “cuts and chaos”. Bowen began the week by pointing out the Liberals have unveiled $6 billion worth of election commitments that are not covered in the budget. This is on top of the estimated cost of $77 billion for tax cuts promised in five years’ time for top income earners. Morrison refuses to put a dollar figure on this largesse.

Bowen says the government’s budget rules clearly state that “new spending measures will be more than offset by reductions in spending elsewhere within the budget”. The Labor bean counter spelt out how many nurses, hospital beds and teachers would have to be cut to meet the $6 billion. He asked, “What does [Morrison] plan to cut after the election? Which schools and which hospitals? How many nurses and how many teachers?” Memories of Tony Abbott’s 2014 budget, with its billions of dollars’ worth of cuts he had promised wouldn’t happen, give this attack line its potency.

While Morrison has tried to airbrush out the past six years of Coalition instability and infighting, campaign workers from all parties around the country say it still resonates as a concern for voters. This wariness is being picked up by pre-poll booth workers and doorknockers, and it has given Shorten some of his strongest attack lines.

To cheering supporters last weekend, Shorten said, “Our country deserves better than the government we have currently got.” He said the Liberals were unable to invite Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull to their campaign launch because “lots of people in the Liberal Party can’t stand to be in the same city, let alone the same room as each other”. He cheekily sent a “cheerio to Julie Bishop. I hope you are enjoying doing something else.”

Shorten warned that if the Coalition were to “creep into minority government propped up by their unsavoury allies in the far right of the Australian political firmament” it would spell nine years of wasted time on real action for climate change – three on top of the six already squandered over the issue, which cost Turnbull the party leadership more than once.

No one played a bigger part in this turmoil than Abbott. A Liberal source says the former prime minister is trailing independent Zali Steggall by 10 points in the seat of Warringah, on Sydney’s northern beaches. Steggall is using Abbott’s anti-climate change militancy as a battering ram against him. In response, Abbott enlisted Liberal icon John Howard to his cause. Abbott has also told reporters, hand on heart, that he is backing Morrison 100 per cent and said he is the sort of leader the party needs. Abbott said Morrison is like John Howard, who led “from the centre right” – an endorsement that undermines Morrison’s promise to be everything to everybody in the party. It is a clear warning to putative moderates – including Dave Sharma, who’s battling to win back the seat of Wentworth from independent Kerryn Phelps – that their agenda for more action on energy and climate will be thwarted post-election. Phelps is hoping a late surge will help her retain the seat.

But the Liberals are claiming they have stemmed the bleeding in some key Victorian seats that are under threat, including Deakin, Higgins and La Trobe. Higgins is an interesting admission of vulnerability – it has never been held by Labor. According to Antony Green of the ABC, the Liberals have a 10.1 per cent margin against Labor in Higgins, or a 7.4 per cent margin against the Greens. During the week, the Greens’ candidate, Jason Ball, was boosted by a poll putting him in the lead.

In neighbouring Kooyong, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg faces a similar challenge from the Greens in the form of barrister Julian Burnside. According to party polling, Burnside has outrun former Liberal Oliver Yates, who is running as an independent, and is within striking distance of Frydenberg. Yates, a former chief of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, is scathing of his former party, which he says has been taken over by the right and “will need to split after this election”.

Hopes that Labor could replicate its Victorian state election whitewash of the Liberals were always overblown. Unless Shorten can pick up more than a couple of seats in his home state, though, his journey to The Lodge will be in jeopardy.

Paul Keating chipped in to help on Tuesday with a typically colourful interview on Melbourne ABC Radio. The former prime minister’s main target was Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. He said he had never seen, in 50 years, “any public figure as mean or mean-spirited”. He added: “At this election, those electors in Dickson have a chance to drive a political stake through his dark political heart. And I hope they do.”

Keating’s remarks were aimed more at Victorians than at Dutton’s Brisbane constituents. Dutton features prominently in Labor’s posters everywhere, as he did during the Victorian state election, for his role in bringing down Turnbull. On Twitter, Dutton replied that Keating almost destroyed “Dad’s small business with his heartless mismanagement of the economy”. The Home Affairs minister added it was Keating who had inspired him to join the Liberal Party – a party that has kept him largely hidden nationally during this campaign.

Far from hidden is controversial billionaire Clive Palmer, who by his own admission has spent close to $70 million promoting himself and his United Australia Party in the lead-up to this election. The claimed splurge is almost as much as taxpayers stumped up in paying his sacked workers the entitlements that he owed them.

Palmer’s preference-swap deal with the Liberals has Labor worried. It could be critical in seats all over the country, but especially in Queensland. Shorten urged voters to reject this “coalition of chaos” that would allow Palmer to turn up on day one “with a political IOU almost as big as his ego”.

We’ll soon find out if voters, brooding over their choices, will heed Shorten’s exhortation, or if Morrison’s equally dire warning about a Labor win will cut through.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Brooding for change". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.